Effect Measure

Benzene in soda lawsuits settled

When last we looked at the benzene-in-soda lawsuit the dominoes were starting to fall as Coca Cola settled (for general background see here, here, here, here, here and the Environmental Working Group site). Sure enough, the rest of the soft drink makers have now settled.

PepsiCo and several other soft drink manufacturers have agreed to a settlement in a lawsuit brought against the companies alleging their products contained cancer-causing benzene.

The companies said they have agreed to reformulate – or have already reformulated – the drinks to make sure the ingredients they contain will not form benzene. The companies also agreed to give consumers a replacement for any products that were made before the reformulation date.

The class action suit was brought in the US and demanded that the beverage makers remove the drinks from store shelves, reformulate their products, and offer refunds to customers.

The settlement involves PepsiCo, Sunny Delight Beverages Co., Rockstar Inc., Polar Beverages Inc. and Shasta Beverages Inc., according to Forbes magazine. (Food Navigator News)

Benzene is a known human carcinogen. Its presence in soft drinks from a reaction between the preservatives ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate was discovered in 1990 but kept quiet by the FDA and manufacturers on the the tacit understanding it would be taken care of by reformulating the products to prevent benzene formation. But the problem wasn’t taken care of. So much for tacit, voluntary understandings. They often don’t work, especially if no one knows about either the problem or the understandings.

The benzene levels varied, many exceeding the community drinking water standard by a wide margin. The FDA has no standard for benzene in soft drinks, although there is no reason to believe benzene-laced water loses its cancer causing potential by having sugar and artificial colors added to it. Benzene apparently can keep forming in the drink if it is stored at high temperatures (e.g., the trunk of your car on the way home from the grocery or a hot warehouse). As part of the settlement the companies have reformulated the product to reduce or eliminate benzene formation.

We know about the problem now because of an FDA scientist divulged the presence of benzene to a BeverageDaily.com reporter in February. The Environmental Working Group deserves kudos for getting on and staying on the case. Settling the class action lawsuits is the most tangible progress to date that consumer activism can have an effect.

Throughout the US FDA has tried to minimize the risk.

The FDA has stressed that benzene levels it has found so far did not pose an immediate health risk to consumers, but that some reformulation would be required.

Disingenuous, in my view. Of course the levels of benzene posed no immediate health risk. Jumping out of the Empire State Building also poses no immediate health risk, either. You have to hit the ground first. Cancer can take decades to develop, so the risk, while not immediate, can be mortal.

Of course the risk from drinking a bottle of Pepsi with benzene in it is still small for any individual. The problem comes when (literally) billions of people drink it many times daily around the world (these are global corporations with global distributions). Even tiny risks of one in a million suddenly start to pile up bodies.

Pepsi used to have an advertising slogan that included the phrase, “Come Alive!” I never dreamed it was aimed at a cancer cell.


  1. #1 Drat
    July 14, 2007

    Not happy news. Nor is Big Media making sure the public knows.

    By the way, is there any known reaction between potassium benzoate and citric acid? The two occur in Diet Coke.

  2. #2 C. Porter
    July 18, 2007

    My questions is, why is this information not made readily available to the public that would benefit from it? Yes, to reveal this information would raise a red flag within the soft drink industry, but Americans are not going to abandon their sugar/caffeine fixes overnight. Of concern, in my observation, is the complete lack of transparency between the scientists who knew about benezene-synthesizing side reactions within soft drinks and the Big Companies that did nothing about it. Consumers should know what they are consuming.

  3. #3 revere
    July 18, 2007

    CP: It’s been in the press a bit and various other places. The link to FoodNavigator in the post has a link to the FDA results. But it hasn’t made that much of a splash, I agree. If you trawl back through some of my posts on the subject you’ll see what’s come out.

  4. #4 Hank Roberts
    January 29, 2008

    Where would this turn up in health statistics? Any way to group children who did and did not drink the problem sodas?

    Any evidence whether or not canned sodas were shipped exposed to outside temperatures? I’d assume they weren’t kept climate controlled. No proof though.

    On exposure levels, I found this:


    “Conclusions: We found an excess risk of leukemia associated with cumulative benzene exposures and benzene exposure intensities that were considerably lower than reported in previous studies. No evidence was found of a threshold cumulative exposure below which there was no risk.

    (C) 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc. “